In this edition, Dallas County District Attorney Michelle Shughart provides a behind-the-scenes look at the criminal prosecution of former neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch, whose sinister story is depicted in popular true-crime series ‘Dr. Death.’ Over the course of his short career, Duntsch maimed over 30 patients, with two more dying during and shortly after undergoing surgery with him. Host Jonathan Amarilio and co-host Trisha Rich talk with Shughart about how the unprecedented case landed on her desk and the uphill battle his victims faced in bringing him to justice.
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Jonathan Amarilio: Hello everyone and welcome to CBA’s At The Bar Podcast where we have unscripted conversations with our guests about legal news, topic, stories and whatever else strikes our lawyerly fancy. I’m your host, John Amarilio of Taft Law and joining me as co-host is the ever incomparable Trish Rich of Holland & Knight. Hey, Trish.
Trisha Rich: Hey John, how you doing?
Jonathan Amarilio: I’m great, especially today because I have to admit that I’ve been looking forward to this interview ever since my wife and I watched Dr. Death, the miniseries on Peacock starring Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, and Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, also known as Joshua Jackson. It is one of the most disturbing unbelievable and frightening stories I’ve ever heard. And it’s a tale of Dr. Christopher Duntsch a.k.a. Dr. Death. A neurosurgeon turned almost borderline serial killer of the 37 patients he operated on over the course of around two years, 33 were severely injured and two died. And our guest today, to discuss Dr. Duntsch and his case is Michelle Shughart, the prosecutor in Dallas County Texas district attorney’s office and the person who put Dr. Death in prison for life. Michelle, welcome to At The Bar.
Michelle Shughart: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Jonathan Amarilio: Thanks so much for being here. You know, Michelle, those of us who know me know that I think the best way to tell a story is by starting at the end briefly, then going back to the beginning. Then periodically returning to the end all the while giving different character’s perspectives throughout you know, just to add a bit of dynamism and avoid linear storytelling. Trisha is smirking. But in this case, they did that in the Peacock series and I thought it was pretty hard to follow. So why don’t we be a little bit more chronological about it this time and start with when Dr. Duntsch moved to Dallas, was about 2011 and he joined the Minimally Invasive Spine Institute in Plano, Texas. He also had privileges at Baylor Regional Medical Center as a neurosurgeon and he started running into trouble with patients immediately at that first job, didn’t he?
Michelle Shughart: Pretty much. The first couple of patients maybe didn’t have as by the complications but within a few patients who was beginning to see issues with them.
Jonathan Amarilio: One of the stories that stuck out from his time there for me, was it — he was almost immediately relegated to minor surgeries because of the complications with his first few patients that you mentioned. And even then, I think maybe his first patient after he was relegated to minor surgeries, he ended up cutting blood vessel in the woman’s spinal cord and killing her, right?
Michelle Shughart: Yeah. I mean that was after he’d taken a short leave of absence after a really bad surgery and then he comes back from it and they say, hey, only the most basic of stuff and it’s really was a very simple surgery. Kind of their bread and butter and then he just goes right in there and causes massive bleeding and she ends up dying.
Trisha Rich: So one question I had, and I’ll confess as John knows and the reason I’m here today is that I’m a true crime junkie, but I also have a very queasy stomach. So this is a story I followed less than I normally follow these kinds of stories. But when I was reading up on this for the interview today, I was shocked to see he started at a minimally invasive spine surgery center. Those are not words I would have ever put together. I mean it seems like the type of medicine he was practicing is very invasive.
Michelle Shughart: Yeah. I mean it is very invasive. The minimally invasive refers to how they get into the body. They try and use small holes. So that instead of completely opening up the back they’re just using small access points which has a less risk of infection.
Trisha Rich: Okay. That’s very helpful. Hopefully I’m not the only one of our listeners that had that question.
Jonathan Amarilio: So he gets in trouble early, Michelle, and that quickly led to his resignation. And I bring that up because he resigned before he was terminated and that had consequences, right? In terms of how he was tracked and reported?
Michelle Shughart: Yes. Definitely. The way — the way that he was allowed to resign instead of them firing him and that prevents certain reporting requirements.
Jonathan Amarilio: Right. So that meant that they didn’t have to and also didn’t report him to the National Practitioner Data Bank which is a resource hospitals use to track fired, suspended physicians or physicians who have had their license revoked, right? And they also didn’t have to and didn’t report him to the Texas Medical Board, which allowed him to go on to his next position. As you got to know the case, were you able to explore their motivations for not reporting him?
Michelle Shughart: Yeah. we explained it a little bit. I think every place that he went to had their own reasons for why they didn’t ultimately report him. And, you know, they all sound good when you’re talking to them, but as you dig a little deeper you realize that’s probably not what really should happen if we’re absolutely concerned about what patient safety is, you know.
If we’re actually truly looking out for our patients. I think that there’s a lot of things in general that motivated everyone. The first hospital I would say part of their motivations was that they felt like he’s still young. It’s early on in his career. Maybe this is just a big mess up. He’s not going to practice here anymore, but we don’t want to mess up his whole career. And technically they didn’t have to report him according to the requirements and so they were working within that.
Trisha Rich: So I was just going to ask about that. Our listeners who have heard me before know that I practiced largely in the area of lawyer regulation and we have many instances in which we are required under our rules to report lawyers. When I was reading about the story, that was one of the shocking things to me that there was never any mandatory reporting obligation by anybody. Is that really the case or were people skirting their duties to report this kind of conduct?
Michelle Shughart: I would say that there are definitely loopholes in the reporting requirements and that hospitals like to take advantage of those loopholes in order to prevent their own litigation from the doctors doing them. They —
Trisha Rich: That’s interesting. Yeah, so there’s maybe a culture of not reporting if you can figure out a way to not report it?
Michelle Shughart: Yes, exactly.
Trisha Rich: Yikes.
Michelle Shughart: It’s pretty scary.
Trisha Rich: That’s very scary.
Jonathan Amarilio: So speaking of, he goes to Dallas Medical Center and he immediately kills another patient there, leaves another one a quadriplegic and cuts the vocal cords of a third patient, right, Michelle? Correct me if I’m wrong.
Michelle Shughart: No. Those patients you just named off a lot of them were the ones at the first place at Baylor Hospital.
Jonathan Amarilio: Okay.
Michelle Shughart: That’s where he had a bunch of bad outcomes including — the quadriplegic was his best friend and that was the surgery where he was given that temporary suspension. You know, he temporarily gave up his privileges and they —
Jonathan Amarilio: I see.
Michelle Shughart: Investigated and then he came back from that and immediately killed a lady. That was supposed to be a simple surgery. And then when he goes on to Dallas Medical Center, that’s where he — he’s only there a week and he has three patients there and all of them end up being hurt but particularly his second and his third ones were just terrible outcomes. His second patient he gets into the neck and causes bleeding and then pushes some sponges too deep and basically he blocks the artery leading up to her brain and she ends up having a stroke overnight and then the very next day he goes into his third patient surgery instead of helping take care of her. And obviously there’s problems with that.
Jonathan Amarilio: Wow. Okay, so he finally starts getting more negative attention there, right? And a bad reputation in the Texas medical community and I think at that point he was finally reported to the data bank in the medical board, is that right?
Michelle Shughart: No, no.
Jonathan Amarilio: No? Okay.
Michelle Shughart: That hospital didn’t report him either.
Jonathan Amarilio: Yeah.
Michelle Shughart: You’re going to be appalled, none of these places reported him.
Jonathan Amarilio: Wow. Okay. So what caused him to go from Dallas to his third job at University General Hospital?
Michelle Shughart: Well, at Dallas he was only there a week and he had these terrible outcomes. He ended up killing that patient. Patient number two died while he was operating on page number three, and so they just basically say go away and they don’t report him and then it’s a couple of months and he’s off to two other surgery centers. One is University General Hospital and one is Legacy Surgery Center. He begins anew there.
Jonathan Amarilio: Wow. Okay, and I wanted to circle back to the accountability part of it with which Trish touched on a little bit already but was it at University General where he mistook a patient’s neck muscle for a tumor?
Michelle Shughart: Yes. Yeah.
Jonathan Amarilio: He tried to remove it? Yeah. And that was the operation which his fellow surgeon called quote unquote attempted murder. Is that right?
Michelle Shughart: Yes. Yes. I believe Dr. Kirby said that.
Jonathan Amarilio: Yeah, so his license is finally suspended in 2013. So he’s been practicing little more than two years as we said before injuring 33 or 37 patients. What led to his license being suspended? I know that seems like a silly question but I guess what I’m asking is, you know, was there a straw that broke the camel’s back or did the medical board finally start paying attention? What happened there?
Michelle Shughart: It took a combination of things to actually bring him down and get him to stop. That patient you were just talking about where he is in there and he yanks out part of his esophagus thinking that it’s a tumor, that’s the very last patient that he ever operated on. And he also stuffed a sponge in there and sewed him up and left it in there and it caused a massive infection and then he refused to take care of him basically. And they ended up having to transfer that patient to a different hospital and he almost died. And so that terrible surgery combined with the efforts of all of these other doctors who had been harassing the medical board and harassing the CEOs of these surgery centers and the hospitals, trying to get him stopped. Finally, they were able to get that done.
Trisha Rich: This is just absolutely shocking to me because, you know, I stopped like a lot of lawyers, stopped taking science classes in college and I am absolutely convinced I could be a better surgeon than this guy was.
And he went through, you know, 12 to 15 years of training, right? I mean, where is the miss there? Like how did he avoid learning how to do proper surgeries as he went through medical school?
Michelle Shughart: Yeah, you know, I think — I think he couldn’t translate it actually. I think he knew how to do it in his head and he couldn’t translate it down into his hands and make it happen. I also think that he was really high on drugs when he was doing a lot of this and probably was destroying his brain in his off time and as well as in the surgeries with these drugs and all of that is interfering with it. I mean he literally called, you know, cocaine his neuro stimulants. That’s what he was taking to keep him up during his surgeries
Jonathan Amarilio: That takes us to the motivation question, which I think is the million-dollar question in this case. Was he a psychopath, a sociopath, you know, was he a megalomaniac or was he just grossly incompetent? Let’s start where you ended Michelle. He had a long history of drug abuse, right? Going back at least to medical school?
Michelle Shughart: Right. Yes. Yes, and my answer to your question is, yes. All of those things that you mentioned. He — he is — he is a psychopath. He completely lacks empathy for the people that he’s working with. He also is, you know, had a lot of greed, very much owed a lot of people a lot of money. He was insistent that he was going to just make billions of dollars. He thought he was a genius, huge narcissist. So all of those things were playing into this along with the drugs that he was doing
Jonathan Amarilio: And going back to Trish’s last question. Also, it’s my understanding, correct me if I’m wrong that while he was in medical school, like the typical neurosurgery resident completes around like a thousand surgeries before they graduate the residency program. He didn’t even complete a hundred surgeries. He was just woefully under trained. Is that accurate?
Michelle Shughart: It was difficult for us to determine exactly how many he had done. We did try and order as many as possible from the hospital’s we knew he was practicing out there, but I don’t know that I can say for sure. A lot of people had indicated to us that he wasn’t getting as many surgeries as he should have had to be properly trained, but the school has indicated that he did have as many as you he was supposed to have.
Jonathan Amarilio: Okay.
Trisha Rich: Are there no minimum requirement — and so like, you know, the way lawyers are regulated. The ABA tells us what we have to take in law school. And, you know, we have to take crime law, we have to take, you know, civil procedure. We have to take professional ethics. And if you don’t, you can’t graduate from an accredited law school, right? Isn’t there any — if you’re going to be a surgeon in med school, you have to do X number of hours of surgery. Isn’t there like a bottom-line requirement for that?
Michelle Shughart: Yes. Yeah, there are requirements and the school says that he met those requirements.
Trisha Rich: Okay, but they don’t have the records?
Michelle Shughart: I don’t know whether or not they have the records. I’m assuming that they do. Tennessee has laws that very much protect those records and so we were not able to actually get them.
Jonathan Amarilio: I mean this is the same school. I’m not asking you to opine on the quality of the education at the University of Tennessee Memphis. But this is the same school that knew he had a drug problem. Put him in a drug program and let him continue operating and graduate soon thereafter nonetheless, right?
Michelle Shughart: All of the things did happen. Yes.
Jonathan Amarilio: Okay. Just as a matter of fact. You know, one of the things that disturb me the most was on the topic of motivation. He wrote an e-mail to his former assistant and girlfriend in 2011, right? And that kind of revealed all those psychopathic sociopathic megalomaniacal tendencies we were talking about, right?
Michelle Shughart: Yeah.
Jonathan Amarilio: There was a quote from that that I wanted to ask you about, get your opinion about and it was this, he writes to her. Unfortunately, you cannot understand that I’m building an empire. And I’m so far outside the box that the earth is small and the sun is bright. I am ready to leave the love and kindness and goodness and patience that I mix with everything else that I am and become a cold-blooded killer.
Michelle Shughart: Yes.
Jonathan Amarilio: What did you think when you first saw that?
Michelle Shughart: At first I thought, well, bingo, this is my case. And then, as you dig in deeper, you begin to realize that, okay, this is showing us who he is. I mean, this is how he views himself. You know, he talks in it about thinking that he’s — people think he’s something between God, Einstein and the antichrist. And I think that all of it just goes to show where he’s at in his mind. That he really does think that he’s the best and he can do whatever he wants. Run over whoever he wants and nobody’s going to be able to stop him.
Trisha Rich: You know, one thing that I found interesting as I was reading about this case was it seems like when the Texas Medical Board finally did open up an investigation.
It struck me that they didn’t do an interim suspension of his license and that he was free to practice during the 10 months the investigation was ongoing. Of course, in my brain I translate that immediately to lawyer regulation, where in terms suspensions are appropriate under our statutes, in our regulations, where an attorney is committing ongoing harm to the public, right? And so usually in the lawyer world, the place you see that is where lawyers are actively stealing money from their clients or recently in the Rudy Giuliani matter. He had an interim suspension against him. But it was absolutely shocking to me that in this instance, Texas Medical Board was like, yeah, we have all this information, but just keep on doing you until we kind of get to the end. You get due process here. Would he just not practice, like it was it just the case that he couldn’t get a job then so they were like, you know, no harm no foul or it just absolutely blew my mind that they did not issue an interim suspension at that point.
Michelle Shughart: Yeah. I mean certainly as a patient we would want them to issue that suspension, right? I mean there were a lot of complaints with the medical board at the end of the day. We did get those records and they had a bunch on hand. You know, they of course had their reasons for not suspending him whether or not we agree with them is a different matter but it’s a very scary thing to think that he could be out there with all these complaints and people being hurt and the agency we think is protecting us is taking their time.
Jonathan Amarilio: To that point, did it lead to any reforms? Any introspection at the Texas Medical Board? Like how could this go so wrong? We need to fix the system.
Michelle Shughart: I don’t know whether they actually did anywhere forms. I certainly hope so. I know that a lot of the doctors I worked with were fighting for a changes to happen so that maybe they could move a little bit quicker next time, take care of things faster. Especially because they had so much information coming in from other doctors and complained saying how bad he was. But as far as whether there actually were anywhere forms made, I don’t know. I do know that some of the hospitals have made changes.
Jonathan Amarilio: Right. And that’s really saying something it seems to me that other doctors were pushing for the reform because, you know, it’s not very often where you see professionals or anyone else really standing up and saying, please regulate us more, right?
Michelle Shughart: Right. Exactly. That’s how appalled they were though. I mean they — you know it’s very rare to have physicians willing to talk to lawyers and say, yeah, let me talk bad about this other guy over here. They just don’t do that. They have a kind of a community of silence. And yet, in this case, they were literally banging on the DA’s door trying to say, hey, you have to investigate this guy. You’ve got to help us stop him and they all, you know, consulted with me for free. They testified for free and that’s just unheard of and that tells you how bad he was in their minds.
Jonathan Amarilio: So, I want to put a pin in that. Take a quick break and start right where we left off. We’ll be right back after this message.
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Jonathan Amarilio: And we’re back. So Michelle, you said that you had doctors knocking on the DA’s door trying to bring this case to the authority’s attention. Is that how you first heard about Dr. Duntsch?
Michelle Shughart: I didn’t get it at quite at that time. Initially there was a different DA on it, but it was very early on. Right after that last surgery that you were talking about earlier. And so none of the other patients had really been heard of, they hadn’t been investigated. And so it definitely took some time before our office could really pick it up and run with it.
Jonathan Amarilio: So will you walk us through that process a little bit? You know, this case lands on your desk. What did you first think about it? How did you first approach it?
Michelle Shughart: Well when I first heard about it, I kind of just was super interested because I’ve always loved medicine and thought it was fascinating. And so I just kind of took it from my boss and she was real sweet and let me have it and she was very busy anyway. So I was like, let me help you with that. And I took it. Mostly because it’s fascinating and then I started researching it. You know, I talked to some of the civil lawyers who’ve been working on it a while. I went out and started talking to some of the doctors who worked on these patients and just began doing my own research and trying to learn what had actually gone on here and was what he did wrong.
Was it criminal? You know, trying to make that distinction between is this a civil case or is this something is there something deeper and darker going on here. And so that was kind of where the beginning of the focus of my investigation was.
Trisha Rich: And so ultimately you did end up charging him with reaches of criminal laws, right?
Michelle Shughart: Yes.
Trisha Rich: And what exactly did you charge him with for people that didn’t watch the miniseries?
Michelle Shughart: We ended up charging him with five counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and causing serious bodily injury. And then also one count of injury to an elderly person, which is the one we went to trial on.
Trisha Rich: Your right. And so are you — you’re not going to trial in any of the other four, right?
Michelle Shughart: No. Yeah. We’re not going to go to trial on them.
Trisha Rich: Yeah, I had read that as part of my research for coming in on this today. And I also read that this was the first conviction of its kind that you’re aware of, is that right?
Michelle Shughart: Yeah. We really tried to look for some guidance in our investigation to see has somebody else done this, you know. Is there something we can kind of tailgate off of and we couldn’t find anything where a surgeon was prosecuted criminally for the terrible things that he had done in the patients in the operating room. You know outside of maybe sexually assaulting someone or giving them too many drugs, things like that. That’s kind of stuff that happens more often than you would want. But for just being a bad surgeon, that was different.
Trisha Rich: Yeah. I definitely have seen this on at least one episode of Law & Order, but I think — but I think in that instance, the surgeon was drunk. And so I think that distinguishes that from your case as well, right?
Michelle Shughart: Right. Mine was doing cocaine. He wasn’t drunk.
Trisha Rich: Well, it’s just really interesting because, you know, one of the things I read is this was sort of a hard pitch for you to make in your office to take this to you know, prosecution. Because I mean what you had to say is really this guy is so bad, it’s literally attempted murder because he has the intent to do this. And it sounds like that e-mail that you uncovered during discovery went a long way. But for that e-mail, if you hadn’t had that e-mail, do you think you would have been able to prosecute this case and ultimately get a conviction?
Michelle Shughart: Yes, absolutely. We did end up giving the jurors the e-mail and they told us afterwards they didn’t think it was that important to the case. Like it didn’t have a big impact on them. And what we ended up getting from everybody I’ve ever presented this case to, whether it was the grand jury or my bosses or the real jury. When you hear the first patient, you’re like, okay. And then you hear another one, and you’re like, yeah that’s you know, but doctors they still have bad days. How many patients overall there but by the time you really kind of get to the fifth and the sixth and the seventh patient and they’re all happening in a row and there’s no good patients going on in between. Then you really start to realize, we got a problem. You know? Like we got a monster on the loose here.
Trisha Rich: That’s interesting because that was my inclination as well. It was you know, if you read the Wikipedia page on this case, they make sort of a big deal about this e-mail. And when I saw the e-mail, I was like, you know. I mean maybe that would have — if I sat on that jury, maybe it would have helped me. Maybe it wouldn’t have helped me. But the fact that this guy just kept operating on people is really shocking and it just shows like, you know, I mean, we — I think we know things were not good at. Like I’m not good at math. I’m not good at singing, right?
Jonathan Amarilio: It’s true. I’ve heard it. It’s not good.
Trisha Rich: Terrible stuff.
Jonathan Amarilio: It’s not good.
Trisha Rich: This guy had no — there was never any moment apparently where he was like wow, I’m not a good surgeon. Maybe I should stop cutting people open, right? I mean —
Michelle Shughart: Yeah. No. He never had that moment. I mean it was never his fault. You could ask him about every single case, horrible things and all these surgeries and it was never his fault. He always had an excuse or he would say the patients were lying about it. Even when we had, you know, the Dallas Police homicide detective who interviewed him. Chris Anderson. He was talking to him about these cases and he’s like, mister you know, Mr. Cheney’s 90% better. You know? He’s working at 90% capacity which is completely untrue. Mr. Cheney, he cut his spinal cord and so he can’t feel half of his body, you know? I mean just the inability in his brain to recognize that there were problems, he never really overcame that.
Jonathan Amarilio: Okay. So that’s where you ultimately landed on his motivation that he was truly incapable of understanding the damage he was doing as opposed to — I mean the reason I thought the e-mail is so important was his words at the end of it. I’m ready to become a cold-blooded killer. That shows me clear intent to harm people. But what I’m hearing from you now is that he was just completely detached from reality.
Michelle Shughart: Yeah, I think both of those things can be true at the same time. I definitely think he’s completely detached from reality. I definitely think he had, you know, money issues and drug issues, but it’s also very possible that that e-mail gives you insight into what he was really thinking. I can’t negate that e-mail. I can’t say he isn’t a stone cold killer because he did kill people, and he was harming them.
Jonathan Amarilio: Right. Let’s talk a little bit about lessons learned from all of this. I know that Texas has a pretty low cap on medical malpractice damages. I think it’s a quarter of a million dollars. And, you know, as I was talking about this case, with some of my partners, we all had the same thought, which is did that contribute to the systemic failure here, you know? Because in a lot of states plaintiffs PI lawyers end up playing almost a quasi-regulatory role of the medical industry. You know, if a doctor has several bad outcomes in a row, odds are in Illinois a lawyer’s going to hear about it and file a complaint and that’s going to get the hospital’s attention. Really quickly they’re going to have trouble sweeping it under the rug. Do you think that those kinds of limitations in the civil system in Texas contributed to what happened here?
Michelle Shughart: I definitely think it’s possible that they did. I think hospitals have less incentive to make sure that they’re stopping these sort of doctors from practicing because the limits are so low. It may cost them less to go ahead and pay out that money than it would to defend a suit against a doctor who is being hindered from practicing. So absolutely I think of the low limits can be contributing to what happened here.
Trisha Rich: It’s really shocking. I mean it’s just really a frustrating thing that — that could happen.
Michelle Shughart: Yeah, that was definitely one of the hardest parts about what I was learning is these places aren’t necessarily putting their patients first, you know? Their businesses first and they’re putting themselves first and doctors are very protected and while most physicians I think are doing an amazing job, the ones who are out there that are harming people, they’re hard to find because they are so protected and the general public doesn’t have access to that information.
Jonathan Amarilio: That’s a heavy thought, but let’s go back to your strategy in the case a little bit. The elder abuse count that you went to trial on. I think that would surprise most of our audience members, you know? That kind of seems like out of left field. Why not murder and attempted murder charges? What — what led to that strategy?
Michelle Shughart: Sure. So for a murder I have to prove that he was intentionally and knowingly killing them. And I didn’t feel like I could prove his mental state was going into these urges, I’m going to kill this person. But injury to an elderly person is the exact same level. They’re both first degrees. And so it gave me the same punishment range and yet it’s easier for me to prove and that’s why we went with that charge instead. We were glad to have that full punishment range from five years up to 99 years or life because that gives the jury more room to work.
Trisha Rich: And is that the reason that you went to trial on that charge first?
Michelle Shughart: Yeah. I mean that’s kind of the main reason. Also because her case I feel like what happened and it was so egregious the things that he did in her body were so terrible that there’s no justification for it alone. So even if the jurors didn’t get to hear about all the other patients who had been injured before her, that they could look at her case alone and be like, no, that shouldn’t have happened. What happened in her was criminal.
Trisha Rich: Yeah. I would have been your perfect juror for that case. Except that I would not have been able to look at any of the photos. But if somebody I — you know, just last year at 40 years old I lost my first grandparent, like all of my grandparents are still alive and I would have — you put any old person up there with an injury, I would have been like, you know, convict that guy immediately. Did you ever feel like that having an elderly person as the victim on this was helpful to you?
Michelle Shughart: I definitely think people have sympathy for that. She was our very first witness because I wanted the jury to see her and she rolled in a wheelchair and testified, you know, she couldn’t get up on the witness stand. So she testified in her wheelchair. You know, on the floor level and talking to the juries. And I think that that had a really big impact on them and all of us because it makes it real. You’re like, here’s your patient and you can see what he did to her. He put her in this wheelchair.
Jonathan Amarilio: So the case was about her but you were able to get at least some evidence of his other botched surgeries in, right?
Michelle Shughart: Yeah. Yeah, and that goes back to what you all were talking about earlier is we — you know, we had to show that he knew he was going to hurt her in the surgery. I mean the things he did in the surgery alone, like he had to have known that he was hurting her in a way because they were so bad. But also we were able to use these other patients that have come before her. The two that he had killed. His best friend he’d made a quadriplegic and a couple of other patients who had obvious injuries and use that to show, you know, he had all this knowledge. He had all this information in his head that he had hurt these patients one after another and yet he still went into the surgery. He didn’t stop himself like he should have. And that was ultimately what we put in front of the jury. Like he should have stopped himself. He would have known better and he’s the only one who had all that information.
Jonathan Amarilio: When you were thinking of how you would present this to the jury. What did you think your greatest challenge would be?
Michelle Shughart: I felt like I had two big challenges. In my head I was very afraid because he’s a doctor and I was worried. You know, are jurors going to convict a doctor? Are they going to look at this and say, this is just, you know, like he’s a good citizen? He’s worked hard his whole life. We are going to convict him of a criminal case. That was my number one fear. And then my number two obstacle I felt like I had to overcome was you have to teach the jurors neurosurgery, right? I had to find a way to simplify it down so they could understand what the surgery was supposed to look like versus what actually happened and why that was so bad. And so I really worked with, you know, all of my expert doctors to dumb it down for me and then also make it easy to present that to the jury in a variety of ways.
Trisha Rich: I mean this case is really just unbelievable. I mean I — I don’t — maybe you’ve had other career making cases, but this feels like a career-making case to me.
Michelle Shughart: Yeah, I would agree with that. I definitely feel like it has defined a very big part of my career. It’s something I’m very proud of we all worked very hard on but also just it’s different, right? I mean I’ve been doing murders for years and years and years and a lot of them they kind of start to look alike. Not that they’re all the same but there’s only so many different ways that you can present that to a jury, but this was completely different. This is not something that we’ve ever done at our DA’s office or you know, that I could find it a different DA’s office. And so it was very unique and it basically took up two whole years of my life trying to get all this together. And so I would say it had a really big impact on me and the office in general is still one of the most asked about cases that we ever had.
Trisha Rich: Sure and for our listeners who haven’t read anything about this case. Can you tell them how long the jury took to convict?
Michelle Shughart: Sure. It took — I think it took four hours for the guilt part and in Texas we bifurcate and so punishment took another couple. It didn’t take very long, just took a couple of hours, but it was very — it seemed like a very long time to me for them to find him guilty.
Trisha Rich: Yeah, and its punishment done by the jury as well?
Michelle Shughart: Yes. Yeah.
Jonathan Amarilio: And the punishment was?
Michelle Shughart: They gave him life, which is exactly what we had asked them for, you know. We — in the main case, we presented six patients and then in punishment we presented 10 more patients, which is obviously not all the patients that he hurt but we felt like it gave them enough to be, like he didn’t stop even after this sweet lady we brought you in a wheelchair. He just kept going and hurting more and more patients. And so our ultimate argument to them was he gave them a life sentence and so he has earned that life sentence, you know? These people are going to be in pain the rest of their lives or you know, a couple are dead.
Trisha Rich: That must have just been so powerful for the jury to just see literally like a clown car of like one person after another person after another person after another person coming in and saying like, I’m going to have this pain or this injury for the rest of my life. I mean that must have been just — just absolutely awful to sit through.
Michelle Shughart: Yeah, I think it was like a freight train, you know? It was non-stop constant patients. The jurors were crying with some of these patients. I mean it was very emotional I think for everyone in that room and you know, one point we put on one patient’s husband and he was talking about how she was dying and she had this terrible infection and then, you know, he got off this and they were crying with him and then he got off the stand and she walked in the room after him. And we realized that the jury didn’t know that she was alive. They thought she had died because it had been so powerful with her husband and then when she walked in the room, it was like everybody sigh of breath of relief like, my gosh, she’s still alive. Thank goodness, you know? And so that just kind of tells you how much they were feeling with these patients and the things that they were going through.
Trisha Rich: And what is the range of punishments the jury could have agreed on?
Michelle Shughart: They had from five years up to 99 years or life. And they just gave him life. We always like the letters.
Trisha Rich: Yeah, in Texas he’s eligible for parole, right?
Michelle Shughart: Yes. He’ll be eligible for parole after about 35 years.
Jonathan Amarilio: So for those of our audience who did see the miniseries, you were portrayed by Anna Sophia Robb. We’ve had a couple of lawyers on the show that have been portrayed in movies and I always like to ask this question. Do you think her portrayal was faithful to the truth? That there was some dramatic license taken? What did you think?
Michelle Shughart: I thought she did a really amazing job. She talked to me a lot and really I think portrayed who I am as a person. She tried to get it right as far as where I was coming from and the things I was trying to do and I really feel like she portrayed my personality in an amazing way that made me feel good about myself.
Trisha Rich: I would also feel good about myself if in my lawyer movie I get portrayed by somebody that’s 20 years younger than me as well. I hope that.
Michelle Shughart: Yes. Exactly. I was like skinny, you know?
Trisha Rich: Beautiful.
Michelle Shughart: And younger. I was like, I will take that all day. She was just so sweet. Yeah. She’s a joy. Absolutely.
Jonathan Amarilio: That’s probably a good place for us to take a break. We’ll be right back.
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Jonathan Amarilio: And we’re back. So Michelle, this was a somewhat heavy topic. Let’s try to end it on a bit of a lighter note with our game we call stranger and legal fiction. Our audience knows the rules. They’re pretty straightforward. Trish and I have both done a little research. We found a lot that is weird but real, but probably shouldn’t be. We’ve also made another law up and we’re going to quiz you and each other to see who can distinguish strange fact from fiction. Are you ready to play?
Michelle Shughart: I’m ready. Let’s do it.
Jonathan Amarilio: Trish?
Trisha Rich: Yeah. I’ll go first. I’ll tell you when I was researching this I first like did a sort of a deep dive into Texas laws and then I realized that was really stupid because you would probably know them. And so I picked another state. So I —
Jonathan Amarilio: Good call. Good call.
Trisha Rich: I am coming to you today in spirit from Idaho. So —
Jonathan Amarilio: Wait. Wait, I picked an Idaho law.
Trisha Rich: Did you really? This has happened to us once before.
Jonathan Amarilio: I know, please, I’m really hoping it’s not the same one. Go.
Michelle Shughart: I’m hoping it is because I have no big answer to the second time around.
Trisha Rich: Yeah, in Idaho John Amarilio is not allowed to be there, is that it John?
Jonathan Amarilio: I’m fine with that. That’s a long story but I’m perfectly okay with that one.
Trisha Rich: Okay. Law number one, in Idaho, public displays of affection are limited to 18 minutes or fewer or number two, in Idaho, no selling chickens after sundown without permission from the sheriff. One of these is true and one is false.
Michelle Shughart: I’m going to go with number two. I definitely think number two is true. I feel like that’s something that’s still on the books.
Trisha Rich: I can tell by John’s face that number one I did pick his question. And number two, he knows the answer. Go ahead John.
Jonathan Amarilio: Wait, no, before we get there. I want to hear Michelle’s thinking on that. Why do you think number two is the real one?
Michelle Shughart: You know, I just feel like the regulation of poultry is something that, you know, rural counties might really be into and so I’ve — maybe there was a dispute back in the 1700s where you know, somebody was selling poultry after dark. And so this became a law and it never made it off the books.
Jonathan Amarilio: So, but like would grocery stores have to like close at dusk or something? How would that — right? Although it’s a law that’s presumably not enforced these usually are — I’m just thinking this through. The affection one, that kind of sounds like a typical, you know up tight blue law. All right. I’m going to be a contrarian and say the kissing one’s real.
Trisha Rich: But John, you know the answer, right?
Jonathan Amarilio: I don’t actually.
Trisha Rich: Okay. Go ahead. All right, so they both were laws. The public displays of affection law were repealed and the chicken law is still on the books. And I understand it came largely from, you know, like open-air markets not being very well regulated. So that’s what I got for you today.
Michelle Shughart: Excellent. So we know not to buy chicken after dark.
Trisha Rich: Yeah.
Jonathan Amarilio: I would think like big grocery would have done something about that by now, right?
Trisha Rich: Well not if it’s not being enforced, right?
Michelle Shughart: They may now after your podcast.
Jonathan Amarilio: Yeah, but it just takes one person to get sick from back chicken at a grocery store and then they sue and they’ve got this law you know for pretty much automatically prove negligence it seems. It seems like someone should get on top of that. Okay. Anyway, all right, right two. Option number one, in Sarasota, Florida it is illegal to sing while wearing a swimsuit. Option number two, in Idaho still so weird that we both picked Idaho. In Idaho, it is illegal to remove telegraph lines. Michelle, what do you think?
Michelle Shughart: Are we talking about still on the books?
Jonathan Amarilio: Still on the books.
Michelle Shughart: I’m going to go with that one. I feel like that’s the kind of law that you would forget about, you know, as technology moves on and you’re no longer using the telegraph lines. That they might just be forgotten.
Jonathan Amarilio: Trish, what do you think?
Trisha Rich: I will also pick number two.
Jonathan Amarilio: And you are both right. Section 186801 of the Idaho code makes it a misdemeanor to remove telegraph lines punishable by up to six months in prison or $1,000.00 fine. The Sarasota law I found that on a lot of websites claiming that was a law, like a weird law in Florida, but I could not find anywhere in the Florida code or the Sarasota Municipal Code backing that up. So I think that’s just a little bit of — of internet lore.
Michelle Shughart: Well, I went to high school and college in Florida and so I can tell you, pretty much everyone wears bathing suits all the time. So either they don’t want you singing at all or you got to put some clothes on.
Jonathan Amarilio: I mean that’s like half the attraction of living there, right?
Michelle Shughart: Right. Exactly.
Trisha Rich: You add that in with all the elderly people in Florida and that really just gives me one more reason to never go there.
Jonathan Amarilio: And that is going to be our show for today. Michelle, this has been one of my favorite episodes to record. Absolutely fascinating. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you very much for what you do and thank you for putting the likes of Christopher Duntsch behind bars for the rest of his life where he can no longer harm people.
Michelle Shughart: Sure. Thank you everyone.
Trisha Rich: Thank you so much.
Jonathan Amarilio: I also want to thank my co-host, Trisha Rich, our executive producer, Jen Byrne as well as Adam Lockwood on sound and everyone at the Legal Talk Network family. Remember, you can follow us and send us comments, questions, episode ideas or just troll us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @CBAatthebar, all one word. Please also rate and leave us your feedback on Apple podcast, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, Audible, iHeart or wherever you download your podcast that’s helps get the word out. Until next time, for everyone here at the CBA, thank you for joining us and we’ll see you soon At The Bar.
Now, for those of you who are listening in Burnt Corn, Alabama, we’ve got a great Spotify playlist for you all this week. In honor of Alice’s love for the fiddle, we’ve got fiddle songs. And yeah, you’re goddamn right, I can make an entire playlist of songs featuring fiddles. Now, Sadly, we’ve run out of time for me to reach a state of oneness with the universe but I am drunk as fuck so there’s that. That’ll do it for another episode of the Legal Toolkit podcast where we rent a corn and nuts but definitely not corn nuts.
The views expressed by the participants of this program are their own and do not represent the views of nor are they endorsed by Legal Talk Network, its officers, directors, employees, agents, representatives, shareholders and subsidiaries. None of the content should be considered legal advice. As always, consult a lawyer.
Podcast transcription by Tech-Synergy.com